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Give Me The Impossible – the story of Truby King and the Plunket Movement

by Rhonda Bartle  

Newton King: Truby's brother built a business empire in Taranaki. Image: PHO2007-162
Newton King: Truby's brother built a business empire in Taranaki. Image: PHO2007-162

Tags for this Story

Medicine, Mental Illness, Truby King

Give me the impossible.
Let me lead a forlorn hope,
you know I am always at my best
Frederic Truby King

A very odd gentleman

One generation removed from our very first settlers, Sir Truby King was a mess of contradictions.  He once turned up at Buckingham Palace in a fawn-coloured raincoat, woollen gloves and an old silk hat.  His thoughts, as always, were somewhere else.  He was known as a manic traveller, farmer and gardener, and yet he possessed the patience of a saint.  And did you know he once built a house around a tree?

An early escape from the grim reaper

But let's go back to the beginning. Before he was even one year old, Truby King almost died.  Evacuated during the Taranaki Wars of the 1860s he fell ill with seasickness and diarrhoea.  The doctor decided not to 'bleed' him, which he would have done for most ailments, and instead fed him arsenic and mercury.
After eight doses of poison, little Truby's father told him to leave the boy alone to die in peace.  Miraculously, he survived but his health was never good. He would suffer gastroenteritis, bronchio-pneumonia, and pleurisy, and lose the sight in one eye due to tuberculosis.

A good grounding

King's parents Tom and Mary King were some of New Plymouth's original and most prominent settlers.  After arriving on the William Bryan in 1841, they produced seven children.  Frederic Truby, usually known as Truby, arrived on April Fools’ Day, 1858. His elder brother Newton grew up to be a leading Taranaki businessman.
Though the family stayed safe in Nelson for the duration of the war, their farmstead near the Meeting of the Waters burned down in their absence.  When they returned to New Plymouth, they moved to a house on the corner of Dawson and Vivian Streets, where Mary King lived until the ripe old age of 93.

Blame it on the teacher

After following his father into banking, King switched to medicine and at the age of 28, graduated from Edinburgh University as Master of Surgery.  He took out the coveted Ettles Scholarship as the most distinguished student.  Curiously, the top three students that year all hailed from New Zealand.

But what most set King apart was his overwhelming single-mindedness for anything that took his fancy. Credit for this probably goes to Henry Richmond, whose classroom was Richmond Cottage, one of New Plymouth's oldest surviving buildings. Richmond preached focus until a subject was fully mastered, so even when very young, King showed remarkable 'stickability'.
As daughter Mary King wrote in Truby King - The Man, Truby showed an odd persistence, even when he was out with his mother: '...they would go for walks together trying out kites which Mrs King had shown him how to make.  The first one he made himself would not fly at all, but with a perseverance which was one of his outstanding characteristics in later life, Fred made kite after kite till he could produce them rapidly and with perfection.  He bought old rusty knives for 3d each, soaked them in kerosene till the rust came off, and with them fashioned also tops and carts.'

With Bella beside him

When King married Isabella Millar, he fell into a relationship that would sustain him all his life.  Bella filled many roles, from secretary to travel agent, to writing for her husband. The popular column 'Our Babies' appeared under her husband's name in more than 50 New Zealand newspapers.
Her quiet order and intelligence seemed to neatly balance King's organised chaos and absent-mindedness and her death in 1927 left him devastated.

An asylum by the sea

At 30, King took on a job that no one cared to have and became superintendent of Wellington Hospital - a place strapped for cash, with terrible standards and ongoing staffing woes. There he put on his crusader's cap for the first time and implemented better meals, a new sewerage system and a nurses' training school.
From Wellington he went to Seacliff Asylum, a choice that medical men sneered at, saying it was more suited to an inmate than a doctor.  But King held the position of Medical Superintendent, in charge of 50 staff and 500 patients, for the next 30 years.
As Lloyd Chapman said in his biography of King In a Strange Garden, the Victorians might not have wanted their lunatics living with them, but they liked to house them grandly:  'The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum was designed by Lawson who was the architect for Dunedin's brooding Knox Church. Situated some 40kms north of Dunedin on the isolated Otago coast, Seacliff was an ideal spot to house the unwanted victims and dregs of Victorian colonial society...'
Using local clay, workmen produced four and a half million bricks on site to build the country's largest mental institution.  It was New Zealand's largest building, an imposing Scots baronial edifice of three storeys, 225m long by 67m wide with an observation tower almost 50m tall.

A man who likes improvements

What can you say about a man who could turn a badly designed prison into a productive farm, planting out acres of park-like grounds?  You could call him a megalomaniac, or possibly a miracle worker. 
At Seacliff, the vegetables lay in straight rows and cows with blue labels drank from blue-painted buckets.  As well as houses for his staff, King turned paddocks into paying crops, conducted horticultural and scientific experiments, designed an extensive sewerage system and set up a fishing business at nearby Karitane.
In 1889, a glowing report by Dr MacGregor was presented to Parliament:  'Seacliff is no longer a prison where crowds of men and women are confined in close courtyards doing nothing but brooding over their morbid feelings... the administration is vigorous and careful.  The farm is steadily being cleared and is increasing yearly in its productiveness... the best spirit prevails among the staff…I have offered King an assistant but he prefers for the present to keep the whole of the medical treatment in his own hands.'

His own personal fiefdom

King built a holiday house on the nearby Karitane Peninsular so he could further feed his passion for gardening. He called it Kingscliffe and dared the tide to trespass on his land. Often, though, he woke neighbours in the night to help dig trenches and fill sandbags to keep the sea from his door.
The salty land was hardly a natural place to grow a garden, so he shovelled on six feet of top soil and brought fish-heads in barrow-loads to improve the soil. 
Mary King writes: 'Set in beautiful grounds of trees and flowerbeds, the house was not only pleasing to the eye but extremely interesting.  It had been built around a tree, which grew up through the living room, spreading its shady branches over the roof.  Dr King was eccentric; he would rather live with the tree than commit the sin of cutting down so fine a specimen.  That he would have to live with its inevitable inhabitants, spiders and grubs, didn't worry him, he was the first conservationist.'
Kingscliff later became the very first Karitane Hospital and still exists today, though subsequent owners had no qualms about cutting the tree down.

Discovering the Catlins

Now take a deep breath before diving into this next account of King's frenzied foray into Catlin country. And remember, this is a man who suffered bad health.

After a short holiday in the district, King turned his inventor's eye towards Catlin country.  After finishing off a railway line, he enlisted brother Newton's help to build an innovative timber mill using the first steam-powered engines and a skyline hauling system.  Soon the mill produced more than a million feet of timber each year, making it one of the largest mills around.
Some of the wood was used to build 24 houses for the mill workers as King wove his manic way around Tahakopa.  He bought six farms, amassing over 600 hectares, and drained the river flat land for cultivation.  Initially he planted crops, but then he changed to mixed farming and finally to dairying. 
He built the most technically advanced dairy farm that boasted the first herring-bone milking shed, electric lighting, hot water, machine-milking and disinfectant water-baths for his cattle.  Next he built an up-to-the-minute butter and cheese factory.  To use up surplus whey he erected a piggery that produced pigs good enough to fetch top market dollar.
Power was needed, so he slung a waterwheel in a nearby stream and added a steam auxiliary generator for good measure.  As his biographer wryly noted, it was probably a very good thing nuclear power had not been invented!

What's needed now is a baby

The one thing King was unable to produce was a child.  In 1905 he and his wife adopted a baby they called Mary.  There are several different versions about how this came about.  Mary King herself wrote that she was the child of esteemed friends, but the Dictionary of New Zealand Biology tells a slightly different tale, about a mother who might have been unfairly pressured into giving her baby up.
'She was left in financial difficulties and was vulnerable to pressure when the superintendent at Seacliff, Frederic Truby King and his wife Isabella, both in their mid-forties, offered to adopt baby Esther around July 1904. King was impatient and insistent, and Leilah Gordon had few other choices.  Consenting to the adoption was a decision she was bitterly to regret - it became the 'lasting event' in her life.  Before the adoption papers were signed, the Kings went to Japan for six months, leaving the baby in care and Gordon working as a nurse at Seacliff.'

Behind every great man is at least one woman.  Mary, too, would end up a mainstay in King's life.  She would also write his first biography though there are suspicions that she threw out anything unpalatable.
The trip to Japan marked King's first interest in baby-feeding.  Highly impressed with the way Japanese mothers breastfed their babies much longer than European counterparts, he came back ready to change the western world.

Putting theories into practice

But Mary did not thrive in her new home.  Bella described her as a 'very delicate baby, almost a skeleton'.  She chided King, telling him he was more interested in his animals than his own child, and set him the task of finding a more nourishing food for her.  King put on his thinking cap and 'humanised' milk was born. 
Though King still thought breast milk best of all, he considered his 'humanised' milk, a recipe using a scientific blend of cow's milk, lactose sugar, water and fat, every bit as good. With his undivided attention now on baby-feeding, he took his ideas to the world.

King the great orator

King was never shy to go public with his concepts, but it's hard to know what farmers at a Farmer's Union Meeting in Wellington made of a forceful speech on breastfeeding.
 'If it is necessary to be guided by the laws of nature, and to be systematic and accurate in the feeding of plants and lower animals, such care is surely incumbent on us in the rearing of human beings.  Yet what do we find in practice?  In spite of the fact that suckling is the only perfect method of feeding any young mammal, it has become the exception and not the rule...'
This treatise became the very basis of King's new motto - 'To help the mothers and save the babies'.
It wouldn't do to overlook the power of King's oration.  In a celebrated murder trial in New Plymouth in 1909, the Taranaki News wrote: ''No one would have regarded it as anything but incredible that Dr Goode would be acquitted.  But the evidence of Dr King, convincingly placed before the Court, so absolutely and irrefutable upset the whole aspect of the case that the charge literally fell to pieces.  We have never before heard of a case in which what purported to be rebutting evidence for the Prosecution resulted in establishing a case for the Defence...'
King was a mighty man with words.
More resounding rhetoric

'Prevention is better than cure,' was his next rallying cry. With the country in the grip of a terrifying flu epidemic, King offered the Dunedin public a diatribe on infant mortality, Yellow Peril, declining birth rates and insanity due to poor nutrition. 
Though it was a stooped, somewhat untidy creature with his narrow trademark moustache who took the stage, it was this meeting that launched one of New Zealand's largest voluntary organisations when the Promotion of Health among Women and Children was formed. 
Shortly afterwards, two babies discovered in a stable were whisked off to King's Karitane house and a new hospital began.  When a dozen more babies ended up there, the strict Karitane regime of weighing, measuring and recording became the Plunket cornerstone.
As Joyce Powell writes in Plunket Pioneers, King unashamedly played on the fears of the population at that time. 'It was not only the high infant death rate that made his doctrines accepted by influential people.  He also addressed the concerns of the Caucasian world of his time.  The European birth rate was falling and there was fear that 'Asian hordes', particularly from China, would overwhelm the white races.  New Zealand was under-populated and many of its citizens thought the country was very vulnerable to Asian immigration.'

It was that same fear that made King officially oppose contraception.

The Plunket Blueprint

But New Zealand in the early 20th century lacked any kind of useful advice for new mothers, and as a result, babies suffered and often died.
Plunket Pioneers reveals the horrors of baby feeding:  'At the time 73 babies in every thousand died from infant diarrhoea.   Hygiene was very poor and few mothers breast-fed - it was considered unfashionable.  Babies were fed on a variety of foods, including diluted cream, buttermilk, barley water and bread and milk.  Cow's milk was not pasteurised or tested for TB and the way it was delivered to homes encouraged contamination, milk being dipped from cans on delivery carts into whatever receptacle a household owned.  Furthermore, many mothers believed fresh air harmed babies.'
King, along with his new formula, began mixing his pro-breastfeeding ideas with data on child mortality, and began firing on all barrels.  He led a crusade to lower infant death rates, built a factory to make his 'humanised' milk and dreamed of a troop of specially trained women who would take his sensible mothering advice into every New Zealand home.
New rules for healthy babies
King wrote new rules for raising infants - strict four-hourly feeding, no night feeds, potty training from an early age and fresh air day and night.   Mothers were urged to breastfeed, and if they couldn't, there was his own formula, made up according to age and weight.
His factory produced Karilac to be used in place of white sugar, Kariol for the correct amount of fat, and Karil as a tonic for older children.
His new ideas weren't always welcome.  Mothers had always fed their babies on demand.  Some thought King's methods actually starved their babies.  Many ignored his advice and went back to feeding their newborns crushed wine biscuits mashed with water in a bottle with a large-holed teat.

Enter Lady Plunket

When Victoria Plunket, the wife of the Governor General and mother of eight, volunteered to preach the gospel according to King, a training school for Plunket nurses was approved.  Once qualified, nurses earned board and lodgings plus a salary of 100 (pounds).  Supplied with a bicycle and uniform they worked six days a week.  Each nurse wore a Lady Plunket medal and a grey armband with VP embroidered in white.

By the time Lady Plunket sailed for England in 1910, Plunket foundations had been laid throughout the land.  Left behind was a society run by women, for women - unless you were a Maori mother and then the benefits of Plunket did not include you, you were seen by the District nurse.
By 1931, the infant death rate in New Zealand had dropped to the lowest in the world.  By 1946, an incredible 85% of all babies were seen by one of nearly 200 nurses who made 220,000 home visits.  A further 500,000 visits by new mothers were made to specially designed Plunket rooms.

The Kings in decline

In 1921, the Kings moved to Wellington where Truby published several booklets, including The Evils of Picture Shows and the curious The Evils of Cram which slammed excessive study habits in young pupils, particularly girls.  (In it he writes that girls who study obsessively do physical harm to their bodies which can result in infertility.) 
The next year saw a house built on 10 acres of windy Melrose hilltop where King set about converting the grounds to garden.  But Bella's health deteriorated and in 1927 she died.  According to Mary King, her death marked the beginning of the end; heartbroken Truby never recovered.
Finally, King slipped into a mental disorder and was committed but stayed at home - it was deemed unsuitable for the man who had spent decades as Director of Asylums to be admitted as patient.  Though he lived long enough to see a new Karitane hospital and factory opened at Melrose, he was bankrupt when he died.

The obituaries poured in

King was 80 when he died in his sleep on February 10, 1938.  The New Zealand Medical profession wrote an astute obituary:  'Many of his friends and professional contemporaries would run round corners rather than meet him in the street, for fear he would draw them into interminable discussions, and then force them to do something against their will.'
Wellington Plunket nurses added a softer note:  'Every light that he lit is ever bright to carry on his great work for the love of humanity.

King's lasting legacy

Sir Truby King was the first New Zealand citizen honoured with a state funeral and his family was granted special permission to bury him in his own garden.  His face became the first to grace a New Zealand postage stamp when a three-penny stamp was issued in 1957 for the 50th anniversary of Plunket.

His legacy, aside from his noble house, lush gardens and sizeable library, was the no-nonsense, disciplined Plunket approach to raising babies.  His ideas worked well in their day and have been adapted over time to suit social needs. A truly remarkable feat for a famously disorganised man who ate at odd times and paid no heed to his appearance.

First published 1 February 2005






Puke Ariki is not responsible for the content of these external websites.
Biography of Truby King - Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Plunket Society - official website
Truby King House & Garden - Visitor information about the King's house in Melrose, Wellington
Truby King House & Garden photos - interior photos taken by the Friends of the Botanic Garden


Maria Turner – Kingpin of Modern Plunket



Plunket Helpline - 24-hour telephone helpline for parents and caregivers: 0800 933 922


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